Currently standing at 17-17 in the Eastern Conference's seventh seed, many are questioning what's wrong with the Boston Celtics.
ESPN published an article today in which J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez debated whether the Celtics or the Los Angeles Lakers have been more disappointing this season. I outlined my thoughts on the Lakers' situation here, but the Celtics' situation differs from that of the Lakers in that the Celtics should stand pat.
The Celtics have the pieces they need to make another deep playoff run, so fans should keep their fingers off the panic button. If the Celtics' core has learned anything in the Kevin Garnett era, it is that the regular season is essentially preparation for the playoffs. Many of the Celtics' perceived issues this season are merely instances of Doc Rivers and his players getting the kinks out of their system before the postseason.
One of the major gripes with the Celtics this season has been their defense, a hallmark of the K.G. era, but the Celtics are currently 11th in defensive efficiency. Most of that rating has been accrued without defensive standout Avery Bradley, who just returned from injury.
Since Bradley's return against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Celtics have averaged 86 PPG by opponents, all of whom were playoff teams. Although the Indiana Pacers are a sub-par offensive squad, surrendering just 75 points to any NBA squad is a significant achievement.
Which leads to another criticism of the Celtics: Their bench play. Many suggest that the Boston Celtics' new acquisitions this offseason have not produced enough to make the Celtics a legitimate contender. Here's a few quick hits on the Celtics' new acquisitions.
Courtney Lee, SG
This article outlines Courtney Lee's offensive struggles well, and many criticize Lee's inability to grasp Boston's defensive schemes. However, Lee has played better of late. In the game against the Pacers, Lee had several spark plays indicative of his athletic and defensive ability which led to a solid line of 13 points and five rebounds.
As Lee continues to get used to Doc Rivers' schemes, he will improve. Might he still have off nights? Sure, but he is not the Celtics' only option.
Jason Terry, SG
When Courtney Lee struggled early in the season, the Jet was stellar offensively in place of the injured Avery Bradley. Terry routinely scored in double figures and shot the ball well.
While Terry's offense has dropped off recently, he has proven he is a clutch performer. He may be streaky in the regular season, but he will be on point for the playoffs.
For those still concerned about Terry's recent struggles, it is important to remember that Terry is not a Ray Allen replacement. Avery Bradley replaced Ray Allen last season with better defense and double-digit points. Therefore, Terry's role is more akin to that of Nate Robinson a few years back than it is to Ray Allen. Terry still shoots threes off screens, but his designation is that of leading bench scorer rather than designated corner three-point shooter.
Jeff Green, SF
Many have berated Green for his play this season, considering he signed a four-year, $36 million contract this offseason. While Green is not playing up to the expectations of that contract yet, he is also playing for the first time in a year due to heart surgery.
There are also signs that Green is shaking off the rust, and he plays well when it matters. Green's best games this season have come against solid teams, such as the 76ers (eighth-ranked defense), Thunder (second seed in Western Conference), Blazers (seventh seed in Western Conference), Nets (fifth ranked defense), and Knicks (second seed in Eastern Conference).
Green will come to play when it matters, but like many other Celtics, he uses the regular season to get ready, not to show his cards before the playoffs.
Jared Sullinger, PF
Sullinger may not have the flashy statistics of some of his rookie counterparts, but he has proven he can be the rebounding grinder the Celtics need off the bench. In limited minutes, Sullinger is averaging 5.4 boards per contest (fourth among rookies).
While Sullinger is also solid offensively, he really shines in his effort. Each game, Sullinger makes hustle plays that teams need from bench players. The only knock on Sullinger has been his recent foul trouble, but it is better for Sullinger to foul out now than in the playoffs.
Another recent concern has been Rajon Rondo's trouble with discipline. Rondo has been suspended four times in the past year, and many question whether Rondo is too hot-headed to lead a team into the playoffs.
However, Rondo's fire is not a detriment to the Celtics, but rather a positive. In addition to leading the league in assists and triple-doubles this season, nobody turns their intensity up more for the playoffs than Rajon Rondo. In the 2011 playoffs, Rondo dislocated his elbow and still came back to beat the Heat in the same game. Rondo wants to win, and his fire, due in part to his tenure with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, will fuel the Celtics to get into and thrive in the playoffs.
Lastly, and most importantly for the Celtics, the field in the Eastern Conference is so weak that the Celtics will not only make the playoffs, but thrive in them.
Even if the Celtics do not grab a high seed in the playoffs, they have performed well against prospective playoff teams this season, especially of late. The Celtics have beaten the Pacers, Hawks and Knicks in the past three games, all of whom the Celtics could face in the playoffs given their current trajectory.
While the Heat will certainly give the Celtics all they can handle, it is unlikely they will surrender the top seed in the East. Conversely, it is unlikely the Celtics will drop behind teams like the Bucks or the 76ers for the bottom seed.
The Celtics will make the playoffs. Trade offers for players like DeMarcus Cousins and Anderson Varejao will cost too much for the Celtics not only in terms of bodies and draft picks, but also in terms of chemistry. The Celtics significantly hurt their chances of contending in 2011 when they traded Kendrick Perkins and altered the team chemistry.
This team can and will succeed. The regular season does not determine playoff success, it gets teams ready for the playoffs. In that regard, the Celtics are doing exactly what they should be doing.